Untold story of journalists, activists struggling with Shakahola trauma

Detectives retrieve bodies in Shakahola forest, Kilifi county. [Marioon Kithi, Standard]

It is an experience that is etched in the minds of journalists and human rights activists who were at the forefront of covering one of the deadliest massacres in the country’s history.

And as the clock ticks towards the fifth round of exhumation of bodies at Shakahola Forest scheduled for next week, journalists have recounted the trauma they have had to deal with.

From interviewing heartbroken and desperate family members, and witnessing the bodies of hundreds of people dug from their graves, it has not been a journey for the fainthearted.

Health experts noted that covering the Shakahola horror for the past year consistently meant that many journalists and human rights activists suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

On Wednesday, journalists and activists narrated to The Standard on Sunday how they have been struggling to cope with the mental pressure associated with witnessing the horror that is the Shakahola mass deaths.

Charo Banda, a K24 journalist, said the experience of covering the massacre left him in a state of shock.

“I always thought I was going to be fine. I knew this job would be difficult for sure but I did not realise the extent to which these anxieties, fears or worries were going to get to me,” said Banda.

He said he often feels depressed and short-tempered, and he wakes up sweating from nightmares. When he meets friends, he has trouble fully enjoying himself.

According to the broadcast journalist, the horrific images he saw during the exhumation exercises, and the raw pain from the faces of distraught family members who lost their loved ones keep replaying in his mind.

“I always try to have fun or be happy, but it is very hard. It gets interrupted by reality,” he explained.

Banda said he also finds it hard to pull himself away from his work because he feels like he should stay on top of the news and promptly respond to calls and messages.

“My job became part of my life. It is so embedded in my life that it is almost inseparable,” he said.

In the middle of the forest, journalists recall unbearable stench from the mass graves, piles of fresh earth marked by crucifixes awaiting the attention of forensic experts.

Kaya FM reporter Geoffrey Ngombo said one of the hardest things was reintegrating with his family.

“If I were to say what is more difficult in this crisis, getting over the images of the dead people, or going on a mission that is long and then going home where I am a husband and father, I think that is the most challenging experience,” he said.

Studies have shown that reporting on horrific scenes can have serious effects on journalists’ mental health.

It is not only the effect of disturbing events that they witness, but also from secondary or vicarious trauma, which includes viewing photos or videos of traumatic incidents or speaking to survivors.

Freelance journalist Neema Karisa fell to her knees at the Malindi sub-county hospital mortuary when she discovered that among the bodies lying there were of her friends and neighbours.

She said she spotted a young girl, about the age of her own daughter, who had lost her family in the cult and was in the hospital malnourished and dirty.

“This is my local hospital, inside are my friends, my neighbours. This is my community. Today has been one of the most difficult days in my career. I have seen things that I have never seen,” she said then.

The unprecedented nature of the massacre both in its scale and proximity caught many news organisations and journalists unawares. 

A human rights activist Victor Kaudo said he has been having long nights and is constantly on alert from the gut-wrenching smell, the sound of children crying and struggling to fall asleep before 4am.

He said he is easily irritated and suffers from disturbing thought patterns and poor appetite.

“Sometimes I feel better, and then I remember Shakahola and I get angry and frustrated again. My daily life has become very rough. When I leave the house, I am not optimistic anymore,” he explained.

On Wednesday, Inuka Kenya organised a counselling session for journalists and activists ahead of the next round of exhumations planned for next week.

Inuka Kenya counselling psychologist Ms Salima Njoki said the aim of the debrief was to help journalists and activists deal with the psychological fallout from reporting the horrific scenes.

She said journalists often hide mental health troubles behind the veneer of bravado but later suffer from mental problems.

“Journalists are always behind other first-on-the-scene fields. When you are regularly exposed to death and destruction and constantly dealing with the pressure of deadlines, you are definitely a candidate for either primary or vicarious trauma,” she said. 

Njoki said that many journalists who covered the Shakahola massacre suffered from severe stress hence the counseling sessions.

She said journalists may experience anger, difficulty in concentrating, a sense of helplessness, and exhaustion as a result of witnessing trauma.